Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
T. S. Eliot, The Rock
Contradicting Chaucer, who thought it sweet, T. S. Eliot called April "the cruellest month." As an Australian academic, I side with Chaucer. April is the most optimistic month in our academic calendar because that is when we hold our graduation ceremonies. Over the years, I have been fortunate to conduct many ceremonies in which I have welcomed scores of proud graduates to the "fellowship of educated men and women." Despite the inevitable déjà vu, I always come away feeling good about the future.
One regular feature of every graduation ceremony is a queue of students of a certain age waiting to receive their doctorates in history, classics, English, philosophy, fine arts and the other subjects collectively known as the humanities. Their stories are similar. After a business career, the public service or one of the professions, they returned to the university to fulfil a life-long desire to study the architecture of ancient Rome, steep themselves in poetry or write a novel. Almost without exception, their focus is the humanities. Not once have I encountered a retiree whose return to university was driven by a passion for accounting, marketing, or business administration. When working life wanes and it comes time to feed the soul, it seems that only the humanities provide the required nutrition.
Despite the enthusiasm they induce, the humanities are in crisis. Humanities academics feel undervalued or, even worse, in danger of being tossed overboard as leaky finances force universities to jettison disciplines to keep afloat. Language departments have been disappearing from universities for years. More recently, classics and philosophy have begun to fade away as well. History remains reasonably robust, but nothing is sacrosanct. At least one Australian university has abandoned English. O tempora! O mores!
The trend is international. In England, the government removed almost all public funding from university humanities departments. Students who want to study classics, languages, or history will have to pay the cost of their self-indulgence. The new universities of Asia specialise almost entirely in science, technology, and business, with tiny offerings in the arts, literature, and philosophy. For-profit universities shun the humanities altogether.
The perilous state of the humanities has spawned a plethora of worthy books lamenting their decline. There are now so many such books that "academic declinism" has become a literary genre of its own. Amazon may soon offer an end-of-the-university-as-we-know-it box set. (E-books, no doubt.)
These books chart the symptoms of decay: fewer humanities courses, low paying jobs, and generations of students leaving university never having read any of the great books that define our civilisation.
The leitmotif of the academic declinism literature is money. Specifically, the impetus to make money, which has elevated subjects with immediate financial returns such as commerce over less bankable subjects such as the humanities.
In Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money, James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield claim that the traditional role of money in universities has been inverted. Universities once sought money to teach classes and conduct research, but this relationship has now been turned upside down. Today's universities teach and conduct research to make money. Instead of a means to achieve an end, making money is now the primary goal. Students and their families have followed the trend. They no longer shop around for the best education their money can buy. Instead, they seek the education that will bring them the most money. Not surprisingly, universities have begun measuring their success by the income of their graduates.
Education wasn't always about money. From its ancient origins until recently, academics defined their mission in moral terms. Following Plato, they believed that education makes good people, and good people act nobly. In the last century, the decline in religion and the widespread acceptance of moral relativism, even idiot nihilism, forced universities to abandon their moral aims-building character, inculcating ethical values, and transmitting culture. Having lost their time-honoured purposes, universities looked for a replacement. Not surprisingly, the one they found reflects the primary concern of modern society-making money.
To defend themselves, supporters of the humanities have taken to arguing that economic impact is not limited to the sciences, engineering, and medicine-the humanities make money too. Take Shakespeare, for example. The Bard is the epitome of a "creative industry." Tourists flock to Stratford-upon-Avon, spending up big in the local hotels, bars, and souvenir shops. Shakespeare's plays are performed live or in cinema versions before large audiences. Copies of his sonnets continue to rake in millions, and even the wine sold during the interval at the Globe theatre brings in loads of money. All true. There is only one problem. Shakespeare's value has nothing to do with any of this. I know it has been said before, but it bears repeating; we seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
I am not against getting rich. As screen siren, Mae West once said: "I've been rich, and I've been poor and believe me, honey, rich is better." As a former vice-chancellor, I know as well as anyone that money is necessary for universities to achieve their goals. ("No margin, no mission".) But surely, the first step is to have goals. Otherwise, universities become institutions with means but no ends.